The Flight of the Sorceress

The Flight of the Sorceress
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Wednesday, December 14, 2011



“Pogrom”: an organized massacre of helpless people; specifically: a massacre of Jews. Yiddish, from Russian, literally, devastation. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary) “Pogrom” signifies “the destruction of Jewish life and property --through a thuggish or thug-like encounter of organized mob violence and vandalism-- against Jewish individuals, shops, homes or businesses that were directly or indirectly supported or organized by the government” according to K.K. Brattman of the Holocaust Survivors and Remembrance Project.

When we think of a pogrom, what springs to mind is a frenzied mob whipped up by religious fanatic descending upon a Jewish community as local government authorities stand by watching. Because the Jews have been dehumanized, the mob believe they are doing God’s work and the killing, maiming raping, looting, burning and destroying of Jews and their worldly goods is justifiable.

Although the term pogrom is generally associated with massacres in Russia and the Ukraine, such anti-Jewish violence was not invented in 19th Century Eastern Europe. Similar incidents were common during the Middle Ages and particularly during the Crusades.But just how far back in history did this go?

In the course of eight years of research for my historical novel, The Flight of the Sorceress, I was able to find a prototype for the stereotypical Eastern European pogrom, the expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria, Egypt in 414 or 415 A.D. under the leadership of Saint Cyril. Though history records a number of massacres of Jews before that time, they all had aspects similar to the traditional behavior of plundering conquerors -- armies engaged in warfare or in its retaliatory aftermath. The virulent anti-Semitic religious justifications were absent. It was not until the church and state combined to form a Roman Catholicism under the auspices Emperor Constantine that the violence took on a decidedly anti-Semitic context with calls for ethnic cleansing. Before that time, state/religious-sanctioned claims of a Jewish pariah were not common. (The reader should be aware that when discussing the Roman Catholic Church, I distinguish the institution from the flock.)

Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 47, describes the Alexandria pogrom of 415 A.D. thusly:

"Without any legal sentence, without any royal mandate, the patriarch (Saint Cyril), at the dawn of day, led a seditious multitude to the attack of the synagogues. Unarmed and unprepared, the Jews were incapable of resistance; their houses of prayer were leveled with the ground, and the episcopal warrior, after rewarding his troops with the plunder of their goods, expelled from the city the remnant of the unbelieving nation."

The foundation for this new kind of ethnic oppression, based upon an inferior status before God, began a century earlier, with Roman Emperor Constantine’s dissembling Edict of Milan in 313. A.D. by which he freed Christians from the brutal repression they experienced under the preceding emperors. But with this edict, Constantine actually began empowering a Roman Catholic Church, giving it the green light to vilify and harass Jews. And soon this cacophony of hate, preached from the pulpit began to dominate the public forum, laying the groundwork for further oppression.

From then on, anything but toleration prevailed for Jews in the Roman Empire. Soon after, others of Constantine’s Imperial decrees isolated Jews by prohibiting conversions to Judaism and banning inter-faith marriage, which often entailed conversion. He changed the Sabbath to Sunday. Later emperors restricted visitation of Gentiles to synagogues, barred repair of Jewish places of worship and instituted restrictions on Jews holding public office. Thus encouraged, by the latter half of the fourth century, CE, Roman Catholic bishops, such as John Chrysostom were spewing libels and hate against Jews that would rival anything Joseph Goebbels could crank out of his Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, such as: 

“[The Jews] are inveterate murderers, destroyers, men possessed by the devil... debauchery and drunkenness have given them the manners of pigs and lusty goats. They know only one thing, to satisfy their gullets, get drunk, to kill and maim one another. They murder their offspring and immolate them to the devil ...The Jewish disease must be guarded against. The Christian's duty is to hate the Jews.”

For this hate mongering, John Chrysostom was canonized and is still revered to this day as a saint. 

Though not as vituperative as Chrysostom, even St. Augustine got into the act. "Let them live among us, but let them suffer and be continually humiliated," he counseled. 

Originally brought to Alexandria Egypt as soldiers seven hundred years earlier, just before the pogrom of 415. A.D. the Jewish population of Alexandria was said to have numbered between 40,000 and 75,000 --one quarter of the city’s inhabitants. Jews enjoyed the civil rights of citizens as decreed by Augustus and as a guarantee their rights were engraved upon a tablet of brass mounted in a public space for all to see. But as in Spain in 1492, once the Roman Catholicism became the state religion, such “guarantees” became meaningless.

Early Roman Catholic accounts of the Alexandria pogrom read like NAZI propaganda.  
Socrates Scholasticus, the fifth century Roman Catholic historian claims that the expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria was provoked after a priest named Hierax shouted down a dance performance claiming it was blasphemous. Socrates claims that when Jewish audience-members complained Orestes, the city’s prefect, arrested and tortured Hierax. He writes that Saint Cyril… 

on being informed of this, sent for the principal Jews, and threatened them with the utmost severities unless they desisted from their molestation of the Christians. These menaces, instead of suppressing their violence, only rendered the Jewish populace more furious, and led them to form conspiracies for the destruction of the Christians. Having agreed that each one of them should wear a ring on his finger, made of the bark of a palm branch, for the sake of mutual recognition, they determined to attack the Christians on a certain night; and sending persons into the streets to raise an outcry that Alexander's church was on fire, they thus drew the Christians out in great anxiety and slew them readily distinguishing each other by their rings. At daybreak the authors of this atrocity could not be concealed; and Cyril going to their synagogue attended by an immense body of people, took it away from them, and driving the Jews out of the city, permitted the multitude to plunder their goods. Thus were the Jews, who had inhabited the city from the time of Alexander the Macedonian, expelled from it, stripped of all they possessed, and dispersed, some in one direction and some in another.”

Bishop John of Nikiu, an eighth century Copt, with little to support his account but the account of Socrates, embellishes further:

“(The Jews) added outrage to outrage and plotted a massacre through a treacherous device. And they posted beside them at night in all the streets of the city certain men, while others cried out and said: ‘The church of the apostolic Athanasius is on fire: come to its succor, all ye Christians.’ And the Christians on hearing their cry came fourth quite ignorant of the treachery of the Jews. And when the Christians came forth, the Jews arose and wickedly massacred the Christians and shed the blood of many, guiltless though they were. And in the morning, when the surviving Christians heard of the wicked deed which the Jews had wrought, they betook themselves to the patriarch. And the Christians mustered all together and went and marched in wrath to the synagogues of the Jews and took possession of them, and purified them and converted them into churches. … And as for the Jewish assassins they expelled them from the city, and pillaged all their possessions and drove them forth wholly despoiled.”

Not being completely satiated by their violent expulsion of Alexandria’s Jewish population, Bishop John delights in recalling how the Christian mob then went on to murder the Neo-Platonist librarian-philosopher, Hypatia. “They tore off her clothing and dragged her through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire.” (Other, more graphic versions recount that this mob -- the same frothing band that were at the vanguard of the pogrom -- actuality ripped her skin from her bones using broken clamshells while she was alive. There is no reason to suspect that she was the first such victim.)

It should go without saying that each of these surviving accounts comes down to us because the historian/propagandists were apologists for the institution that was the Roman Catholic Church. No other account would have been permitted to see the light of day and would more likely have been relegated to the fires. Indeed, during the reign of Emperor Theodosius I, it became a crime, punishable by forfeiture of all property to even possess written materials offensive to Christians. Many literate Roman citizens burned their entire libraries out of fear that their lands would be confiscated by Church stool-pigeons eager to enrich themselves by informing.

That Jews dared to fight back against the “menaces” of Archbishop Cyril, would, of course, render them the aggressors in these propaganda pieces. We are asked to accept that this pogrom only occurred because a few Jewish theatergoers complained about the disruption of a performance. And further, those Jewish complainers instigated the punishment of the Christian disrupter by a non-Jewish prelate.  However, the historical evidence shows that Cyril, from the moment he ascended to head the Alexandrian archbishopric campaigned to rid the city not only of Jews, but also of pagans and non-Catholic Christian sects. The ethnic cleansing of Alexandria was on his plate all along.

We are then asked to believe that despite the fact that armed and allegedly well-organized Jewish “assassins” were in the field and had successfully massacred Christians all that previous night, this brave Archbishop rallied his allegedly unprepared believers and lead them to victory. How he was able to manage the defeat of these well-armed Jews (many of whom had military experience)  even as his followers were simultaneously being slaughtered by them is never explained by the Roman Catholic chroniclers. Both Socrates and Bishop John are equally silent on how Cyril was able to burn every synagogue in town within a few morning hours without encountering resistance.

Gibbon, again in Chapter 47 of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, dismisses this nonsense.

“Having purged the official Church of Alexandria of its dissenting minority, (Saint) Cyril next targeted the Jews. This numerous community, he decided, should be expelled from the city and the privileges, which they had enjoyed for seven hundred years, since the time of Alexander the Great, rescinded. Without any legal sentence, without any royal mandate, the patriarch, at the dawn of day, led a seditious multitude to the attack of the synagogues. Unarmed and unprepared, the Jews were incapable of resistance; their houses of prayer were leveled with the ground, and the episcopal warrior, after rewarding his troops with the plunder of their goods, expelled from the city the remnant of the unbelieving nation."

The evidence is overwhelming that what occurred in Alexandria in 415 A.D. was a quintessential pogrom instigated by a virulent anti-Semitic zealot who was canonized for his ethnic cleansing, just as John Chrystostom was canonized for his hate-mongering. Each of them remains sanctified despite the blood on their hands.


  1. A very well researched and well written post! I came here while doing research on antisemitism in the ancient world. I was vaguely aware of antisemitism among early Christians, but the words of Chrysostom are truly blood-curdling.

  2. these are but blatant fabrications and lies of jew propagandists who delight into attacking the Roman Catholic Church via their domination of media, television and cinema

  3. KULL, sorry to burst your bubble but Gibbon wasn't a Jew and he wasn't media. Nor were the other sources used in my research. You don't have a leg to stand on with your rant, but that shouldn't bother you because you have the power of antisemitism and prejudice in your corner. I don't have a bone to pick with the religion but the institution of the RCC has a lot of negative karma from the first pogrom, to ghettos to the Inquisition and to the support of Hitler. The are big on confessions for others but not themselves.